The lead sentence from a news story on Friday should have turned a few heads: “Congress moved at lightning speed Thursday to keep telemarketers at bay.” Lightning speed? Congress may be a lot of things, but lightning fast it is not.
Yet when it comes to “protecting” residents from intrusions of telemarketers peddling their wares, Congress is quick to act. Clearly, this action shows how popular is the idea of restricting those annoying phone calls.
We understand the public’s anger at telemarketers, but wonder about the zeal to regulate.
A quick recap: On Tuesday, a federal judge in Oklahoma City struck down the ability of the Federal Trade Commission to maintain a “do not call” list. The judge said the FTC overstepped its authority.
On Thursday, both houses of Congress overwhelmingly passed a bill that grants the FTC the authority to maintain the list, which already includes 50 million phone numbers. President Bush said he would sign the law. The registry was still on schedule for October when another federal judge on Thursday struck down the list for another reason.
The First Amendment rationale — that the registry violated the right to free speech — could not be overturned by Congress. This means a lengthy court battle, and a certain delay of the registry. As some scholars argue, the judge is right because the federal registry allows some types of phone calls (from charities, politicians, businesses already doing business with the person being called) but not others. Other scholars note that the Supreme Court already allows commercial speech to be treated to a lower standard.
We’ll let the courts hash that one out. But it is clear that a telemarketer can drive a Hummer through the bill’s loopholes, as one actor/politician might put it. The public will still get calls, and probably will wonder why that’s happening.
The market is better able to handle the problem than the government, which was savvy enough to exempt itself from the standards (think political phone calls), argues Ludwig von Mises Institute President Llewellyn Rockwell Jr. in a recent column. He points to new technologies that weed out such calls, and to a private do-not-call list established by the telemarketing industry. “Why would a company want to waste its resources calling people who don’t want to be called?”
Granted, lots of people who don’t want to be called still are being called. But they will continue to be called by charities, their existing credit card companies and political groups even if the courts eventually uphold the legality of the FTC registry.
It’s better to look for private solutions that do not treat people unfairly or step on anyone’s speech rights than to support a government regulatory system that won’t come close to accomplishing what it promises.